In December 2018, an Inuk woman was severely beaten by her boyfriend and her sister called the RCMP for help. But officers didn’t take her to a safe house, or provide her with any type of protection.
Instead, they arrested her and she was jailed, her face “black and blue, beaten.” She had violated her bail conditions from an earlier offence by drinking alcohol.
Justice of the peace Joseph Murdoch-Flowers heard her case. It was familiar, he said, noting the police response sends a message to women.
“Call us at your peril.” As conversations about police abolition and defunding the police have come into the mainstream following the murder of George Floyd, critics have raised a concern.
“How will we protect victims of violence if we get rid of the police?”
The question is based on the myth that the police currently protect victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
Who are police serving and protecting?
The police do not serve, let alone protect, women. Especially the women who need protection the most.
Intimate partner violence is a deeply-rooted problem in Canada — it makes up nearly one-third of all police-reported violent crimes.
Though police have long dealt with intimate partner violence and domestic violence, their involvement has done nothing to decrease it, and often makes matters worse.
In the 1960s and ’70s, domestic violence was considered a private issue, a “family matter” in which the police shouldn’t get involved. A group of brave and determined women fought to change that and ensure the violence was taken seriously. By the mid-’70s, five women’s shelters had been built across the country.
But 45 years later, the violence hasn’t decreased. Rather, we’ve simply built more and more shelters to house fleeing women. According to Women’s Shelters Canada, we have over 560 shelters.
It’s common for police to respond to domestic violence calls. But that is exactly what they are doing — responding. Law enforcement is a reactionary measure that does nothing to protect women from experiencing harm; it simply arrives at their door after they’ve been harmed.
And we can’t assume that women who call the police for protection will, in fact, be protected. The experience of the Inuk woman who was beaten and then arrested by police is not an anomaly. There are many accounts of women who called the police for help — especially Indigenous, Black, and poor women — only to find officers escalated the situation or charged the women who called for help in the first place.
Any kind of call can end up with police violence against women. In Calgary, Tara Yaschuk, a white woman, was pushed to the ground with a knee on her neck and taken to a holding cell for hours after she called 911 when she thought her car had been stolen. She was never charged.
No justice for sexual assault victims from police
After an investigation spanning 20 months, the Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded” series reported on police handling of sexual assault allegations. Its findings exposed deep, distressing flaws that permeate every step of our criminal process.
One in five sexual assault reports in Canada is dismissed as unfounded, the Globe found.
So if a woman has the courage to report a sexual violence crime, they have a 20-per-cent chance of being dismissed by police, with no recourse. And what do they take away from that experience — do they feel they are laughed at, dismissed, accused of lying or simply told that their trauma isn’t worth the effort to investigate?
It’s not because police are overworked. The national unfounded rate for sexual assault is twice as high as it is for physical assault. Cops just don’t believe women.
If a victim of sexual and gender-based violence is lucky enough to have their claim classified as “founded,” they still face obstacles stemming from rape myths to sexist stereotypes.
As Eryn Nicole O’Neal has written, rape myths and sexist attitudes among officers can hamper the provision of effective protection for sexual and gender-based violence victims. Officers are often misinformed about consent laws, or hold patriarchal perspectives about consent, both of which result in discrediting, disbelieving and blaming victims.
It is also noteworthy that studies show police officers assault their own intimate partners at significantly higher rates than the general public. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in the Atlantic, “If there’s any job that domestic abuse should disqualify a person from holding, isn’t it the one job that gives you a lethal weapon, trains you to stalk people without their noticing, and relies on your judgment and discretion to protect the abused against domestic abusers?”
Defund the police, and use the money more effectively
Police do not protect women from sexual and gender-based violence, and the problem is twofold.
First, the more money we put into police (a reactionary service), the less money we invest in community programming and education (proactive services) which would dismantle harmful sexist views and thus reduce violence against women.
Second, as it currently stands the police do not respond to sexual and gender-based violence in an adequate fashion.
If we want to protect women — especially Indigenous, Black, trans, mentally-ill and disabled women — we must defund the police. We must stop putting our trust in an institution that has a long history of belittling, distrusting and even harming women at risk. We must recognize that people who go to the police academy for six months do not understand the sensitivities and complexities of sexual and gender-based violence and are ill-equipped to properly serve this vulnerable sect of our community.
We must instead take that money and redirect it into community programming, changing the way our society sees and treats women with a goal of ending domestic violence.
Sexual and gender-based violence is a traumatic, complicated and sensitive phenomenon. It’s unrealistic for us to expect one individual with a radio and a gun to walk into a volatile situation where someone has already been harmed, and somehow solve this centuries-long systemic issue.
Only a reallocation of funds and creative reimagining of our communities — with education programs, community building projects, sufficient social supports — can create a more equitable society and one day eliminate violence against women.